Book review: Peering into the gilded halls

Michael Gross’ tome leaves reader grasping for scraps of theatrics

Michael Gross and the cover of his new book
Michael Gross and the cover of his new book

Like many best-selling authors, Michael Gross follows a formula, attempting to re-create his past hot reads. And that’s understandable, when you consider that 2005’s “740 Park” received widespread acclaim and was even used as the basis of a documentary.

With his new book, “House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World’s Most Powerful Address,” Gross embarks on a historical-yet-tabloidesque journey through one of the most written about “it” buildings of the day.

The book takes an approach similar to those he penned about Los Angeles’ pricey Gold Triangle and the storied co-op 740 Park Avenue. But while the book offers an in-depth chronicle of the Robert A.M. Stern–designed condo for the real estate junkie, for the average reader, it may be a bit of a slog.

The story starts with the history of the Upper West Side, and of the dynastic Zeckendorf family, who developed the now famed 15 Central Park West. Gross delves into the Zeckendorf’s plebeian beginnings and, eventually, the actual plot at 61st Street and Central Park West, where the building stands. These early sections plod on too often.

Juicy bits on real estate figures, like Donald Trump’s fortuitous meeting with Louise Sunshine, who worked with him when he was starting out, will make for cocktail-party fodder, but offer little deep insight. Still, Gross digs out some dramatic nuggets such as a story about William Zeckendorf Sr.’s debt collectors, who, with the city’s blessing, broke into his Park Avenue penthouse to take photos of his art collection, which included works by Degas and Modigliani, to prove he could pay.

However, the history of development in New York, which spread slowly to the West Side and then north, and eventually exterminated every vestige of the gritty old city, is one that has been told often. The rehash is not only unnecessary, but, if it must be included, shouldn’t fill 100 pages. In fact, the actual site on which the title condominium building is built is not mentioned until page 110.

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The Zeckendorfs are revealed as a refreshing contrast to the people who buy their apartments, the latter whom Gross portrays as “exacting and demanding.”

The brothers come across throughout the book as well intentioned and sure-footed. Most interesting is their early relationship with key lender Goldman Sachs. While one cannot help credit the Zeckendorfs for their foresight in forging the relationship, the early mentions of the bank in the book foreshadow the later, darker chapter of its influence, when Goldman captain Lloyd Blankfein and his wife, Laura, plan to move into the building. Construction was funded by the bank’s Whitehall fund, leaving the Zeckendorfs with a debt of gratitude. But, according to Gross’ account, Laura Blankfein’s unrelenting demands that the developers move a structurally necessary wall eventually leave the brothers, once grateful to the bank for ingenious financing of earlier projects, embittered at her husband’s unwillingness to intervene.

“They were pains in the ass, between their wives and lawyers,” a Zeckendorf insider told Gross of Goldman buyers, who also included retired partner Alan Shuch.

Other supposed intrigue between the titans fails to captivate, usually because it comes across as imagined or exaggerated. The sometimes circuitous anecdotes Gross draws on paint a picture of a vicious social landscape. But these assertions center on too-lengthy observations, such as how activist investor Daniel Loeb lives in the same building as Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, even shortly after Loeb effectively forced Yang off the Yahoo board. Underplayed is the fact that the two actually never met in 15 CPW’s halls, nor did either grant an interview for this book.

That leaves the reader feeling like an overzealous fan, peering into the hallowed halls of power, grasping for a scrap of theatrics.

The book is published by Atria Books and was released in March.